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SaaS Helps ISVs Exploit the Web

Attendees at the 2007 SaaScon conference, focusing on the budding software-as-a-service industry, could count themselves as being at the cutting edge, along with the several dozen exhibitors present.

This was SaaScon's second year, and the new aspects of the technology definitely hadn't rubbed off. For example, at the keynote address, "Platforms and Ecosystems," one of the panelist companies hadn't even gone into beta yet with its first product.

The underlying theme of this keynote was how wonderful the new world of multitenant, on-demand applications is becoming. A tacit assumption was that it was going to take off, unlike the abortive ASP revolution. Participants jointly stressed how the widespread adoption of the Internet and its relative reliability flattened the learning curve for new applications working in this environment. Moreover, the ability to create practical multitenant applications makes many of the old independent software vendor (ISV) preoccupations go away.

Such talk goes all of the way back to the original promise of object-oriented programming, where you assemble robust objects separately that don't have to be reengineered and debugged with every product tweak. Of course, multitenancy isn't a selling point to customers. The selling point is lower costs, higher reliability and easy upgrades.

The "Platforms and Ecosystems" keynote aimed at discussing the different types of platforms emerging in the SaaS marketplace, with the four panelists representing the spectrum of approaches to SaaS that are being taken to date. Each approach is attracting an ecosystem of partners, developers and customers, and this keynote provided an examination of those ecosystems, assessing their value to customers, partners and the platform vendors themselves.

The keynote's moderator, Phil Wainewright of ProcelluxVentures, observed that one ISV might use half a dozen ecosystems with one customer product, so these ecosystems are far from mutually exclusive. He said you might use Amazon for inventory storage, host the solution with Obsource and advertise the solution using SalesForce. That diversity, plus the universal interface (the Web), helps to reduce the danger of vendor lock-in.

The keynote's panelists represented Apprenda, Jamcracker, NetSuite, and SalesForce.com.

Apprenda's Hosted SaaS Platform
Apprenda was the company without a product just yet. However, CEO Sinclair Schuller promised a beta release of its SaasGrid product soon. SaaSGrid provides ISVs with a hosted SaaS platform. It should appeal to .NET developers because it uses .NET and other existing industry standard technologies to provide the SaaS goodies to new or existing single-tenant service-oriented applications. You supply the application-specific engineering, while SaasGrid supplies the SaaS revenue modeling, engineering overhead, and operation and hosting infrastructure needs. This lets ISVs focus on the business-specific aspects of their offerings, while enabling them to seek customers anywhere in the world with Internet connectivity.

SaasGrid includes a Web portal with subscription and contract management tools that can be changed quickly to meet market demands and opportunities, yet without touching application code. And it provides a single point of contact for customer billing. It also provides optional services including e-mail, task scheduling, event monitoring and notifications, application logging, user and group management, single sign-on, and more.

So the SaasGrid ecosystem seems likely to appeal to developers with highly specialized products and expertise, whose customers are widely dispersed.

Jamcracker's Ecosystem
Jamcracker's Pivot Path product appears to offer a similar proposition to ISVs as SaaSGrid does, with a key difference: it uses a Java J2EE standards-based architecture and Java APIs rather than the .NET focus of SaaSGrid.

Pivot Path currently supports the following servers and operating systems:

  • JBoss, BEA WebLogic, IBM WebSphere and Oracle application servers;
  • PostgreSQL, Oracle and MS SQL database servers; and
  • Microsoft Windows, Sun Solaris, Red Hat Linux, and SuSE Linux operating systems.

So you can see what kind of ecosystem is growing around Pivot Path.

That said, Jamcracker vice president of marketing Stephen Crawford described a similar set of functionality, with Pivot Path providing service management, user management and access management. Those abstractions include functional aspects, such as centralized control but delegated administration, reporting and billing integration, and most of the other details common to most SaaS applications. Again, the ISV mainly supplies the industry-specific expertise.

NetSuite's SaaS Solutions
True to its name, NetSuite offers a suite of SaaS products. The core product, named after the company, isn't an ISV offering but rather an end user product. It provides a Web-based solution for midsize businesses that integrates accounting/ERP (enterprise resource planning), customer relations management (CRM), e-commerce and partner collaboration capabilities. Other end user products include small business and CRM-only versions.

However, NetSuite does offer an ISV platform called SuiteFlex. That's what NetSuite CFO Jim McGeever came to this keynote to talk about. SuiteFlex provides a technology platform for customization, verticalization and business-process automation within NetSuite. So it's not a general-purpose toolset, but rather one that an ISV can use to customize and/or verticalize NetSuite.

ISVs adapt NetSuite to their needs with a proprietary set of tools based on JavaScript. The core tool is SuiteScript, billed as "the world's first on-demand programming language." A key benefit for ISVs is that vertical products developed with these tools and this platform carry forth seamlessly with core product upgrades, greatly reducing maintenance nightmares.

The second tool, SuiteTalk, lets you integrate third-party and legacy systems with NetSuite. It uses Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP)-based Web service APIs, which means you can use .NET to generate business objects. Finally, the SuiteBuilder toolset provides point-and-click tools for things such as dashboard personalization, company and process configuration, and customization of data relationships and user interface.

SalesForce.com -- Service With a CRM
Just as NetSuite centers around a SaaS-based accounting package, SalesForce.com centers on CRM. And like NetSuite, SalesForce offers both end user CRM products and its Apex platform for customizing and integrating those CRM products, and even for developing new ones. There's also Appexchange, billed as "the world's first online service for browsing, sharing, and installing on-demand business applications."

Apex can be utilized from both Java and .NET to build, customize, integrate and deploy on-demand, multitenant applications -- particularly ones that are integrated with SalesForce applications and use its user interface. The toolset includes Apex Mobile, Builder, Connect, Code, API, DB and OS. Apex Code, still in development, will supply ISVs with the same Java-like development environment that SalesForce uses internally, including adherence to SOAP and XML standards for supplying Web services. And of course, having a multitenant architecture obviates the need for most client-side deployment and operation issues.

Jamcracker's Crawford recalled a phrase from Sun's CEO Scott McNealy: "the network is the computer." While it might not have been true when McNealy first uttered it, it is true now, Crawford said. An analogous situation is the development of the electric grid, he explained. It started a century ago, complete with an evolution of standards, especially between AC and DC. Today, everyone takes electricity on demand for granted.

Similarly, ISVs can take advantage of the user interface standard that has evolved with the Internet, and that's done through SaaS, Crawford suggested.

About the Author

Lee Thé's first computer was a state-of-the-art unit with 48K RAM and a 1MHz processor. He has been writing and editing computer magazine articles since then, in between scuba diving trips. He's based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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